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Afridi injury a concern

Shahid Afridi and Umar Gul, during a practice session, in Mirpur, on Friday. (AP)

Calcutta/Mirpur: Defending champions Pakistan will have to contend with injury issues to key players Shahid Afridi and Umar Gul as they take on a consistent Sri Lanka in the Asia Cup final, on Saturday, at the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium.

Afridi, who has played a pivotal role in turning around the fortunes of Pakistan in this competition, has suffered a Grade I hip flexor strain and his availability will be known only before the game gets underway.

A little bit of stiffness is there in pacer Gul, while Sharjeel Khan and opener Ahmed Shehzad are carrying niggles going into the summit clash. The Sri Lankans, who had defeated the defending champions in the opener, are yet to lose a match in the tournament and would certainly hope that their campaign culminates with the title.

Pakistan’s chances would depend on how they tame seasoned Kumar Sangakkara, who seems to be in the form of his life, and handle the bowling of pacer Lasith Malinga and spinner Ajantha Mendis. It was Malinga, who had taken key wickets of captain Misbah-ul Haq and Afridi in the previous clash between the two sides. Sangakkara’s form will once again be of prime importance to Sri Lanka as it’s the two half-centuries and a hundred from him that played a lead role in taking his team to the final.

Pakistan, on the other hand, have wriggled out of difficult situations to reach their second successive Asia Cup final and a lot of credit goes to Afridi for his fiery knocks of 34 not out and 59 against India and Bangladesh, respectively.

Those two knocks not only revived Pakistan’s hopes of their title defence, but also injected a much-needed spark and life to what was turning out to be a low key Asia Cup affair. No wonder Afridi deserves full credit for bringing at least some amount of interest back in the competition.

After shattering India’s hopes with back-to-back sixes in the final over, off Ravichandran Ashwin, Afridi left hosts Bangladesh devastated, leading Pakistan to a great win, as they chased down Bangladesh’s highest ever total of 326, with his 18-ball half-century.

Those two knocks could not have come at a better time for Afridi who drew flak back home for his string of failures. Considering his present form, the very presence of the all-rounder provides Pakistan with an edge over Sri Lanka.

“I just knew that both the matches were important for Pakistan. There are many reasons that I won’t like to discuss, but both of them were very important for me as well as the country,” Afridi said about the importance of the two knocks.

“There is no such thing that you will score runs with the bat every day. My focus is on bowling well, too. I want to get myself ready in such a way that I deliver for the team, be it in batting or bowling.

“This is not the stage for me to occupy a slot in the side. I want to give something to my country with my performance.”

Sri Lanka would look to do the things quietly with the entire buzz surrounding Afridi. An interesting battle could be on the cards between Afridi and Malinga’s toe-crushers, and Mendis with his variations.

However, Mahela Jayawardene’s form would be a worry. He has managed just 36 runs from four innings so far, while Pakistan would want Misbah to get back amongst runs. “Mahela normally bats very well. It’s only in the last three to four matches that he has failed. He’s a legend of cricket. He can come back very strongly any time. He’s our key batsman along with Sangakkara. Hope he comes back to form in the form,” Thisara Perera said.

It will be interesting to see how Sri Lanka cope up with the challenge of the Pakistan attack, which is considered as the best among the Asian teams. Pakistan may look to bring back left-arm pacer Junaid Khan who was rested against Bangladesh.

Match starts: 1.30pm (IST)